Friday, April 15, 2016

Weakening political parties is not the solution

No matter what you think of either political party, consider Fareed Zakaria's cautions in today's Daily Star editorial.

Clinton Rossiter begins his classic “Parties and Politics in America” with this declaration: “No America without democracy, no democracy without politics, no politics without parties.” In a large and diverse country, in order to get things done, people need some devices to navigate the political system, organize themselves, channel particular interests and ideologies, and negotiate with others who have differing interests and views. Political parties have traditionally played this role in the United States. And they have often played it as a counterweight to the momentary passions of the public.

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The year things changed was 1968. The radicalism that swept the Democratic Party also cast aside its rules for selecting nominees, favoring direct primaries over all else. The Republicans copied the Democrats, and soon the parties ended up with the system we have today.

The result of these changes has been to hollow out political parties, turning them into empty vessels for the most successful political entrepreneur of the moment. In describing these trends in a book on democracy in 2003, I wrote that without strong parties, all you needed to run for president was name recognition and a fundraising machine. I predicted that the party-less system would be good for “political dynasties, celebrity officials and billionaire politicians.” The front-runners in both parties in 2016 fit this description.

What is the harm of this new open system? We can see it now. A party without internal strength and capacity cannot shape the political agenda. Instead, it simply reflects and amplifies the noisiest popular passions. The old system steered toward moderation because it was run mostly by local and state officials who had won general elections and then had to govern. Today, delegates are chosen by primary voters, a much smaller, narrower and more extreme slice of the country. It is ironic that the old smoke-filled rooms were in some sense more representative of the general voter than the open primaries of today.

The old parties drew their strength from neighborhood organizations, churches, unions and local business groups. The new parties are really just rolodexes of Washington professionals — activists, ideologues, fundraisers and pollsters. These professionals are more extreme and less practical. Rossiter’s declaration on democracy has a last phrase: “no parties without compromise and moderation.”

Let's think of ourselves as wing walkers. "Starting in airshows and barnstorming during the 1920s, wing walking is the act of moving on the wings of an airplane during flight." A good piece of advice for the would-be wing walker is: "First Law of Wing-Walking. Never leave hold of what you've got until you've got hold of something else."

If you despair of internal party politics, take heed of that First Law of Wing-Walking. Be careful of leaving hold of what you have. The something else may be a lot worse.

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